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22 Britannia Road, By Amanda Hodgkinson
Home-building in Ipswich, after the Nazis
Sunday 08 May 2011
A red brick house in a Suffolk market town and a good job in an engineering firm offer hope of a picture-book happy ending for the Polish exile Janusz Nowak in 1946.
Demobbed from the RAF, he hasn't seen his young wife, Silvana, or their son, Aurek, for six years, but they've recently been located in a refugee camp and are coming to England. From the moment of their reunion at Victoria Station, however, it's apparent that happy endings must be postponed. "They're in a bad state," the Red Cross official warns Janusz, but this doesn't prepare him for Silvana's aged and forlorn appearance, or their feral seven-year-old.
How the Nowaks attempt to re-establish family life in 22 Britannia Road is convincing and touchingly portrayed, but the heart of this disturbing debut about love and loss lies not in tranquil post-war Ipswich, but in the deep, dark forests of Occupied Poland, where Silvana and Aurek struggled to survive. Their trauma presents itself immediately: mother and son prove so tightly bound together that there's no room in the relationship for Janusz, whom Aurek privately labels "the enemy". Janusz, not unkindly, forbids Aurek from making his strange bird cries and enforces table manners. To Silvana's distress, the boy is made to go to school, where he's a misfit. Gradually, his behaviour improves and he learns to trust his father, but in the meantime, other faultlines crack open. Silvana discovers a cache of love letters to her husband from a Frenchwoman. Most crucially, some terrible, guilty secret is eating away at her.
Successfully weaving three narrative strands and three different viewpoints is a challenge to any novelist, let alone a tyro, but it's one that Amanda Hodgkinson meets with accomplishment. She intersperses the wartime past with the present in a series of tense, sharply observed scenes: the couple's first meeting, in 1937; the blissful early days of their marriage in Warsaw; the birth of their beloved child.
After war put them asunder, we follow their individual odysseys. Janusz joined the Polish army and survived German air attack, but became separated from his regiment. He fled Poland and forged a tortuous journey across Europe to England. Silvana was raped by a German soldier in Warsaw, and took the refugee road with her baby, wandering fearfully through the war-ravaged Polish landscape. She and her child finally sought sanctuary in the great forest which, though steeped in nightmare, real and imagined, at least sheltered and fed them. Not until the end of the book do we discover the complete truth of what happened.
Although the English neighbours are a little stereotypical, the strength of this novel lies in its characters. The Nowaks are tenderly and imaginatively evoked, and the glamorous Italian black marketeer whose young son befriends Aurek is a magnificent creation. Silvana is utterly individual; one doesn't sympathise with some of her prickly or naive reactions, but one is forced to understand them and to long for her happiness. The ending does not disappoint.
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